Image: Tom Anderson and William Sorrell
Alden Pellett  /  AP
U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson, left, with Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, right, at a news conference Thursday. Prosecutors announced that Michael Jacques, 42, has been charged in the disappearance of his niece.
updated 7/3/2008 12:36:53 PM ET 2008-07-03T16:36:53

Federal prosecutors filed kidnapping charges that carry the death penalty against a Vermont man whose 12-year-old niece was found dead near his home.

Authorities accused Michael Jacques, 42, of carefully orchestrating events and e-mails to make it appear that Brooke Bennett had gone on June 25 to see someone she had met online, according to an affidavit accompanying the charges.

Citing statements from another underage girl, prosecutors claim that Jacques tricked Brooke into thinking she was going to a party and instead took her to his home to initiate her into a child sex ring.

Michael Desautels, the federal public defender representing Jacques, did not return calls Thursday morning.

E-mails quoted in an affidavit released Thursday accuse Jacques of coercing or enlisting the second girl to participate.

The girl wrote, "yes. I will help," one e-mail said.

Previous convictions
Jacques is charged under a federal law that provides for the death penalty in a kidnapping resulting in a child's death. Jacques has 1993 convictions for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.

With autopsy results still pending, prosecutors said they could not say that Brooke was murdered. If she was, U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson was asked if he would seek the death penalty.

"That determination would be made after the investigation is completed, after the case is presented to a grand jury and, ultimately, that decision is made by the attorney general of the United States of America," Anderson said.

Meantime, state charges alleging that Jacques sexually assaulted a different girl over a five-year period were dropped, but could be refiled.

MySpace posting
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said there is plenty of work ahead "both in terms of investigation and prosecution."

In the affidavits, authorities accused Jacques of making a MySpace posting, purportedly from Brooke, indicating that she planned a rendezvous on June 25 with someone she had met online.

He also is charged with planting evidence, including some of Brooke's clothing and a plastic bag containing semen, to make it appear someone else had abducted the girl.

Brooke, who had just finished seventh grade at Randolph Union High School, disappeared on June 25 after being seen at a convenience store with Jacques.

After searching in and around his home across town for days, police said they found the girl's body in a spot where the earth had been disturbed.

"Brooke Marie, I love you so much," her mother, Cassandra Gagnon, said at a vigil on Wednesday night in Randolph, a picturesque town of a little more than 5,000. "I just ask that justice be done for the person who took my baby away," she said, sobbing.

The girl's father, James Bennett, added, "I know Brooke knows that we love her and will always love her." 

Image: Michael Jacques
Michael Jacques, the uncle of Brooke Bennett.

In another blow to the family, Bennett's former stepfather, Raymond Gagnon, was formally charged Wednesday with obstructing justice in the case.

He entered no plea at the federal hearing and was denied bail pending another hearing on Monday. The 40-year-old Gagnon, who lives in Texas, was on a regular visit to Vermont when he was arrested.

At the vigil for Bennett in Randolph — a site that still featured big banners reading "Come Home, Brooke, We Love You!!" — Gary Finch, Bennett's homeroom and math teacher last year, said she was an energetic and enthusiastic learner whom he loved having in class.

"She was always volunteering, always with a smile on her face. Smart, creative. It's a tragedy. It's unbelievable. It's hard to comprehend. I didn't think anything like this would happen to such a great kid," said Finch, one of about 300 people who attended.

Finch said that when school started last fall, Bennett was nervous about transferring from her small elementary school to the high school.

"She conquered that," he said. "She didn't conquer this."

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Video: Body of missing 12-year-old girl found


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